As the final installment in our Unclutterer month of sharing, I am honored to present Gina Trapani, founding editor of Lifehacker.com, a daily blog about software and personal productivity. We are truly honored to have Gina as our keynote guest post author.
Just like physical clutter creates negative psychic weight, so does clutter in the digital spaces we work in every day—like our email inboxes. Email overload is one of the biggest sources of anxiety and overwhelming for anyone who works on a computer every day. When you’re faced with an inbox stuffed with hundreds of messages—and you’re not sure what you meant to do with each of them—it’s too easy to feel like you’re drowning in stuff and you’ll never catch up. Here are a few simple ways you can clean up your email box and get that wonderful feeling of being free and clear of email overload.
The Big Inbox Dump
If you’re starting out with an inbox full of messages dating back months, it’s time to move them out of your sight and start fresh. The reason why all those messages piled up for so long is that you didn’t handle them as they came in, and that’s the first habit you’re going to get into—starting today. Make a new folder called “Backlog,” and move all the messages in your inbox older than a day into that folder. Phew! I bet you feel lighter already. (Don’t worry—we’ll talk about how you’re going to get to those later.)
Make an Empty Inbox a Habit
Starting right here and right now, you’re going to process your email as it comes in, and as you’re done with each message, you’re going to either delete it or file it away in a folder separate from your inbox. This means your inbox will be completely empty—clutter-free!—on a regular basis. From here on in, think of your inbox as a temporary holding pen for stuff you haven’t dealt with yet. (Which, coincidentally, is the definition of “inbox.”) Once you make a decision or take an action on a message, move it out of your inbox. That way, you can see at a glance what email you have to process, and everything else is out of sight (and out of mind.)
The Fewer Folders, The Better
Since we come from the physical, paper world, we tend to have a “filing cabinet” approach to our digital documents. But you don’t have to make as many digital folders as you do physical folders because you can search digital documents like email in ways you can’t search paper. So when you decide on the folders (or Gmail labels) you want to use to organize your email, don’t go overboard. Use as few filing places as possible to keep things simple. Remember, you don’t want to trade inbox clutter for folder clutter.
Tackle the Backlog
Now that you’ve processed today’s messages and gotten to an empty inbox and a resolution to keep it that way, it’s time to tackle your backlog folder. First, ask yourself: if an email is older than a month, does the sender really still expect a response? Be honest. Most likely, the answer is no. If it was that important, the sender probably contacted you again more recently, or using another method. This may seem scary to some folks, but I recommend taking all the messages older than a month (or even two or three weeks, for the brave!) and simply moving them into your email archive.
Now you’ve got email backlog from the past month to process. Each day, commit to reducing this pile by half. Start at the oldest messages and respond and file using your new folder system. If you’ve got 500 backlogged messages, after the first day you’ll only have 250. After the second, 125. The third, 62, and so on. Within a couple of weeks, using this new system, you’ll be free and clear from email backlog.
Remember: New messages that come in today get priority over backlog. Your new empty inbox habit will be the key to keeping your inbox clutter-free from day to day. Once you’ve read a message, decide what to do with it on the spot. Don’t leave anything in your inbox, and you’ll thank yourself every time you read the words “You have no new messages.”
Gina Trapani’s new book, Upgrade Your Life, is a compilation of Lifehacker.com’s best tips for working smarter. You can download a free sample chapter of Upgrade Your Life at the book’s official web site.